Coaches play an influential role in the lives of the athletes on their teams. Coaches not only serve as an expert advisor on athletic performance, but they are also often considered a trusted mentor, friend and role model. Oftentimes, as a result of their drive and dedication to the sport, athletes spend a significant portion of their time with their coaches and trainers. This special relationship between athlete and coach, combined with the heightened incidence of eating disorders among athletes, underscores the importance of coaches being well informed about eating disorders in athletes, including an understanding of the warning signs and effective strategies for intervention.
It comes as no surprise that athletes, especially those participating at competitive or professional levels, are generally high achieving individuals. Interestingly, the same perfectionistic, overachieving temperament that fuels excellence among competitive athletes in fact mimics the personality traits of individuals at risk for developing eating disorders. This temperament, combined with the body shape and weight demands of many sports, lead experts to believe that athletes are at greater risk for developing anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).
Every coach should be aware of three facts that relate to eating disorders in athletes:
- Sports and athletic activities that emphasize a certain body type or require competitors to wear revealing or form-fitting clothing can increase the possibility that an athlete will develop an eating disorder or suffer from body image issues. Swimming, wrestling, cross country, gymnastics and dance/cheerleading are all examples of sports that fall into this category. For these types of sports, it is critical that coaches stress the importance and value of overall performance instead of focusing on weight, body fat percentage and other quantitative measures.
- For those athletes that must adhere to weight management demands, coaches should encourage them to prepare early for these demands in order to avoid last-minute weight loss behaviors that can increase the risk of malnutrition and threaten performance, including fasting and fad diets. When athletes are at a lower than normal body weight, it can place strain on the organ systems and bone structure, which can create medical complications. Low body weight can also affect critical bone mass development, which can lead to irreversible osteoporosis. This is especially dangerous for young adolescents and children engaging in anorexic behaviors, as these young athletes are in their crucial years of bone and bone mass development.
- Although typically known as a “woman’s disease,” both men and boys can and do develop disordered eating behaviors. In fact, it is estimated that 10 percent of people struggling with eating disorders are male. Males account for a significant subset of eating disordered athletes as well, with one study finding that as many as one-third of men and boys competing in wrestling, rowing, horseracing, bodybuilding, gymnastics, swimming and diving struggle with eating disorder behaviors.
Should coaches or trainers become concerned about their athlete’s eating behaviors or body image issues, there are resources available. A number of treatment centers across the country offer a variety of programs for individuals with eating disorders. Some even offer specific “tracks” or programs that address the needs of athletes with eating disorders, including adequate nutrition to support athletic competition and the role of exercise and training in eating disorders recovery. Resources for loved ones and coaches are available as well, including the “Toolkit for Coaches and Trainers,” offered by the National Eating Disorders Association and education programs designed to provide accurate information about these illnesses as well as build skills to help support eating disorders recovery.
Comment below with your questions about eating disorders and athletes, and subscribe to receive email alerts when new articles become available.